Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times carried articles today on the recent problems with fresh spinach contaminated with E. coli O157: H7.
The New York Times article by devout low-fatter Marian Burros is full of good information, but completely misses the forest because of all of those trees in the way.
The article starts with a call for more regulation (just what we need) of the produce farming system. It makes a point that I was unaware of (and here I’m assuming the the NY Times fact checkers are accurate).
More outbreaks of disease are now traced to produce than to meat, poultry, fish, eggs and milk combined.
Based on this statement alone, the great unwashed masses might believe that spinich itself is the source of E. coli O157:H7, which is not the case. Since E. coli of all forms, including the virulent O157:H57 strain, are inhabitants of living mammal GI tracts and are not a part of normal plant fauna, it would seem strange that more disease involving E. coli would come from plants. The reason for this, of course, is that meat packing plants and other facilities handling animal products are maintained in a way to reduce the contamination of their products by E. coli. And most products of animal origin are cooked before eating, which kills E. coli. Plant foods, on the other hand, are often eaten raw.
The article goes on to speculate as to how the spinach contamination occured.
The source of the E. coli O157:H7 blamed in the current outbreak is unknown. It may be irrigation water reclaimed from sewage treatment. It may be unsanitary conditions on the farm. But there is increasing suspicion that the cause may be water runoff from the many cattle farms near the fields in the Salinas Valley of California, where produce tainted with the E. coli has caused eight outbreaks of illness since 1995.
Water contaminated with E. coli from cow manure may have been used for irrigation or may have been deposited on the fields by heavy spring rains and flooding.
Dr. Trevor Suslow, a microbiologist at the University of California at Davis, called this case “the catalyst, the tipping point.”
“This is a culmination of incidents that have been going on for 10 years and cattle have become the primary focus,” Dr. Suslow said. “Data from the last 23 years clearly demonstrate the potential for crop contamination from pathogenic E. coli in the watershed.”
So, everyone, it seems, is aware that cattle are the problem, but no one appears to understand that it is the corn feeding of cattle and the subsequent hyper-acidification of their GI tracts that allows this toxic strain to develop. Unless the cattle are corn fed, there isn’t a problem.
One of the ‘experts’ quoted above posits a fairly stupid solution to the problem:
Dr. Suslow asked the question on many critics’ minds: “Should cows be raised in close proximity to produce? Ideally you would like to see them well separated.”
I say stupid because it’s not the raising of cows that causes the problem; it’s how they’re fed out on corn before slaughter. If he had said that all feed lot operations should be separated from produce farm, I would agree.
If you look back at all the years of family farming in this country (and the world over) where the family cow grazed and was fed hay or other silage, you could probably count the number of cases of E. coli O157:H7 borne disease on the fingers of one foot. Since the focus seems to be cattle waste in general and not just that from corn-fed cattle, I can see a real problem brewing up for the cattle industry. If they were smart, the folks running PR for grass fed beef would be all over this situation.
Right now, though, the entities taking virtually all the fire are the spinach growers and packagers. Whenever any kind of widespread problem such as this recent outbreak of E. coli contaminated spinach occurs, the lawyers can’t be far behind.
The Wall Street Journal in an article titled ‘How a Tiny Law Firm Made Hay Out of Tainted Spinach’ tells of lawyers going after the deep pockets of Dole Food Co. and other larger produce handling firms. What’s amazing is how quickly these law firms can spring into action.
Before health officials warned the public about bad spinach, before grocers yanked fresh spinach off their shelves, before consumers cleaned out their refrigerators, the Seattle law firm Marler Clark had filed its first bad-spinach lawsuit.
Then, as word of the bacteria outbreak began to spread this month, lawyers at the firm posted messages on the firm’s E. coli blog, www.ecoliblog.com. They reached out to reporters and waited for the calls and emails to stream in. Now Marler Clark is representing 76 clients. Bill Marler, a 49-year-old partner in the firm, tracks them with Post-it Notes on a U.S. map hanging in his office.
If you’re considering filing suit because you’ve eaten tainted spinach, what kind of settlement can you expect?
Less-severe E. coli cases, with symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration, are usually worth between $25,000 and $500,000 when they are settled, Mr. Marler says. Those involving hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, a potentially life-threatening disease that affects the kidneys and occurs in about 5% to 15% of E. coli patients, can run from $1 million to his highest HUS settlement of $15.6 million.
The problem is, as I see it, that these lawyers are going after the wrong people. As Bill Marler says when accused of being an ambulance chaser, look to the
industry reforms he says came about after he locked horns with companies. Jack in the Box Inc. raised its minimum burger-cooking temperatures to 155° from 140°; the company says the change was unrelated to the legal action. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires hospitals to report HUS cases. Odwalla, another defendant in a Marler Clark suit, began pasteurizing its juices following a 1996 E. coli outbreak.
If Mr. Marler and others went after the real culprits here, the corn-fed cattle business, not just the innocent bystanders, the spinach growers and packagers, they could accomplish some real good.
There is an old legal theory that goes something like this. Let’s say someone brings a lion in a cage into a community. He has the steel cage made with 2 inch diameter bars, and all the joints in the cage welded. He then has the whole affair wrapped with heavy chain, locked with multiple locks. Now let’s say (we don’t know how) that the lion escapes and mauls or maybe even kills someone in the community. Common law has it that the guy who brought the lion into the town in the first place is liable. Granted, he did everything possible to prevent the lion from escaping, but he still is the person who brought the lion and put people at risk.
In the case of the E. coli O157:H7 it would seem to me that the folks who corn feed the cattle are in the same position as the guy who brought the lion to town. The spinach growers and packagers would be more like the people who maybe welded the lion’s cage together. They’re sloppy job was complicate in allowing the lion to escape, but the real fault lies with the guy who exposed everyone to the lion in the first place.
You could take the whole thing a step further and ask who provides the information to those feeding cattle on corn. It’s none other than the good folks at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If you don’t believe it, look in their manuals for cattle feeding. So, at it’s foundation, it’s our own government that has brought the lion to town.